As a child, Noelle Desir suffered from severe eczema. She and her family tried everything to bring the skin condition under control, but without insurance, all they could do was visit the emergency room when she had a flare-up. Finally at age 12, her father, an immigrant from Haiti, secured health coverage for both of his daughters, making it possible for her to see a dermatologist.
To Desir’s surprise, the doctor was Black and female, like her.
“It didn’t occur to me that a Black woman could be a doctor. I had never seen a Black physician, let alone a Black woman physician, growing up on Long Island,” she said. The doctor explained eczema to Desir and counseled her on managing the condition. Not only did it improve, but the experience of having a doctor who looked like her and spent time educating her as a patient changed the course of her life.
“I made a decision in the car ride home that I was going to be a doctor, and I haven’t changed my mind since,” she said. “Too many times you have a very diverse patient population treated by physicians who all look or speak the same way. The population of physicians should be reflective of the population they’re treating.”
Desir is now working toward that goal as a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College. On Aug. 20, she and 105 of her classmates in the Class of 2025 received their short white coats during Weill Cornell Medicine’s annual White Coat Ceremony. They were joined by 10 faculty members, who helped students don their coats, on the Starr Foundation-Maurice R. Greenberg Conference Center Terrace at the Belfer Research Building, for an outdoor in-person ceremony while family and friends watched via livestream, due to ongoing physical gathering restrictions.
The ceremony officially marked the beginning of their medical education, which comes at a unique time for health care.
“You, the Class of 2025, are beginning your medical studies at a crucial and unprecedented moment in history,” said Dr. Augustine M.K. Choi, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medicine. “You have been selected with great care, and we think you have what it takes to tackle the health care challenges we face today and make an impact. As you learn about the pathophysiology of disease and the social determinants of health, I urge you to think about ways to make our health care system more equitable, so that we can deliver better, more culturally sensitive care to all.”
“The white coat itself serves as a symbol of our profession but far more importantly, the white coat is a symbol of a commitment to humanism and to the care of the patient,” said Dr. Yoon Kang, senior associate dean for education and the Richard P. Cohen M.D., Associate Professor of Medical Education at Weill Cornell Medicine. “And in the era of COVID, it is so clear that humanism in medicine, and actively listening and truly understanding individual patients’ lives and stories, is more important than ever.”
When Jalen Matteson, 22, with his brother began interpreting for their two deaf parents at medical appointments, he discovered how much was lost in translation in health care settings, where sign language translation often wasn’t available. His father didn’t learn he had a chronic medical condition until Matteson became his interpreter.
“A lot of deaf people learn to just nod their heads and say yes,” said the Rochester, New York native. “I saw from a very young age their struggle to get care from doctors who wouldn’t take the time to help my parents fully understand what they were saying.”
That experience inspired him to become a doctor. Weill Cornell Medicine’s expanded scholarship program, which provides debt-free education to all medical students with demonstrated financial need, will make it possible for Matteson, a first-generation college graduate, to realize that aspiration.
“After I finish my education and begin practicing medicine, I hope to work with the deaf community, and I won’t need to ask for the best insurance or be in a high-paying specialty – which is important because often deaf patients are on Medicaid, Medicare or uninsured,” he said. “I can be a doctor who can help people like my parents understand their health and navigate the health care system.”
The Class of 2025 adds to Weill Cornell Medicine’s diverse community. Its students hail from 15 different countries. Women comprise more than half the class, a quarter are from groups underrepresented in medicine and 14% are first-generation college graduates. Four students are graduates of the institution’s summer research programs, which provide undergraduate students from underserved racial and ethnic groups or socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to gain deeper insight into science and medicine. Collectively, the incoming class attended 52 different colleges; six are alumni of Cornell.
While medical school white coat ceremonies began only in 1993, they represent the importance of beginning one’s journey in the field of medicine, said keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Hollenberg, the Weill Chair of the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Department of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.
“Donning the coat is a privilege, and with it comes great responsibility,” he said. “Indeed, one cannot overstate the significance of the education you are beginning or the career you will be embarking upon. It is a career and profession steeped in tradition but welcoming change based on new science, understanding past mistakes and inequities, and looking for innovation that will challenge and meet unmet medical need.”
Ana Paola Garcia, 25, knew from an early age that she wanted to work in medicine in her community of Laredo, Texas, which borders Mexico. Growing up, she helped her parents – who trained as doctors in Mexico and worked in health care when they immigrated to the United States – with a makeshift clinic they ran at home. There, they provided care for people who were uninsured or underinsured. While in college, Garcia participated in Weill Cornell Medicine’s Traveler’s Summer Research Fellowship Program, which exposed her to mentorship from physicians who worked in underserved communities.
“I don’t think I knew what advocating for a community in medicine meant until I did Traveler’s,” she said. “It was nice to see people who looked like me who were physicians.”
Now a first-year medical student at Weill Cornell Medical College, she plans to get involved in the Traveler’s program, this time as a mentor, and eventually hopes to return to her hometown to work in her community.
Said Garcia: “I feel like that would make my story come full circle.”
Kathryn Inman is associate editor for Weill Cornell Medicine. Elaine Meyer is a writer and editorial consultant for Weill Cornell Medicine.